Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

The enduring popularity of this short, meditative lyric lies in its ability to appeal to many people on many levels, despite attempts to limit it to one interpretation. The poem’s themes of death and dying have made it a popular selection for memorial services over the years, including Tennyson’s own. The poem, however, has significance for all readers. Daily life, a journey in itself, requires individuals to travel regularly from the safety of home, across a threshold, and into the unknown. Like the world of Tennyson’s traveler, the world beyond the safe region is dark and mysterious, yet at day’s end, people return home.

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In this way, “Crossing the Bar” draws parallels between familiar and repeated patterns of ordinary, daily routine with nature’s daily cycles, such as night and day and the flow and ebb of the tide. Similarly, Tennyson includes the “evening star” and the Pilot as reminders of sources that guide individuals. These elements eloquently diminish the horror of death by drawing attention to the fact that the journey into death is merely part of a cycle: The going out is also a return home to “the boundless deep,” from which this traveler, like all people, came.

The themes of sea and death recur frequently in Tennyson’s life and work. As a child, Tennyson first saw the sea on a family vacation at Mablethorpe on the Lincolnshire coast, a place he revisited often for comfort and solitude when an adult. One critic posits that the poet somehow mentally linked the sea at Mablethorpe with the Mediterranean and the Aegean. This seems to be the case in works like “Ulysses”(1842), a poem about the famous epic hero’s final voyage at the end of his life. Like the traveler in “Crossing the Bar,” Ulysses, now an old man, sails off into the Mediterranean for one final adventure rather than simply yielding to death at home. In “The Passing of Arthur” (1869), Tennyson again connects voyage and death, giving readers the enduring picture of King Arthur’s bier floating out on the dark lake into the unknown. In each case, as in this simple lyric, the final voyage is majestic and dignified.

Even with its strong Christian overtones, “Crossing the Bar” appeals to a universal audience of all faiths and even nonbelievers. Everyone can respond to the image of the journey into the unknown. Tennyson carefully avoids using the words “heaven” and “hell,” “reward” and “punishment.” In Tennyson’s view the final crossing includes no judgment. Dying, then, is simply a stage, and the afterlife, a return home to the same unknown place from which individuals emerge. The Pilot, perhaps the clearest reference to God, is, in the poet’s own words, “the Divine Presence”—God and yet not necessarily the Christian God, but all the same some greater power that controls and guides human activity.

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